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Bill's Rat – Sailing with Rodents in the Caribbean

It’s easier to sail across the Atlantic, apparently, than catch a rat abroad a yacht…

One Sunday afternoon in February, I was sitting in my office which overlooked the docks at Rodney Bay Marina. The sun was shining, there was barely a cloud in the sky and the cooling trade winds blew gently from the east.

As I eyed the yachts lying peacefully alongside, I noticed a 26-foot wooden Folkboat approaching one of our slips. She looked tiny amongst the 50 and 60-footers which surrounded her. Her wooden mast was more like a match stick, next to the huge aluminium masts of her neighbours, and the somewhat dishevelled state of her upper deck, crammed with fuel containers, cuts of wood, old sail bags and coils of rope, confirmed that she was a “real cruising yacht” and not of the same breed as the large, shiny, plastic charter yachts whose vast and unencumbered decks facilitated sun-bathing for their short-term tenants. The Folkboat drew alongside and a lone figure jumped onto the dock and set about securing lines and fenders.

Single-handed sailors have always aroused a certain amount of curiosity, and never more so than when their vessels appear impossibly small to have crossed an ocean, and when their proprietors come across as impecunious “characters” who allow nothing to stand in their way of their adventuring. And so I watched intently, trying to catch a glimpse of this solitary sailor, wondering from which island he had arrived.

I could make out the form of a person busying himself with lines around the yacht’s bows, but could distinguish no features other than an enormous beard which seemed to cover the man’s entire face and fell in matted locks about his upper torso. Nothing else was discernible for, astonishingly, the fellow was covered from head to foot in bright yellow oilskins – an unusual mode of dress on a warm, clear February day in the Eastern Caribbean.

By now more than curious, I continued to watch as the figure at last turned away from his yacht, looked about him and then proceeded to plod deliberately along the main dock towards my office. He had the gait of a man who had been at sea for a long time, an unsteadiness on his feet that, but for the circumstances of his arrival, might have been attributed to a surfeit of liquid refreshments. The circumspect manner with which he negotiated the dock was as if he expected the ground beneath him to roll to one side all of a sudden.

A few moments later, the door to my office opened and the object of my curiosity stepped inside and peered at me inquiringly. “Er …. Hello!” he said in a soft British accent. “I’ve just arrived and, er, I was wondering if …..”

I interrupted him with a smile. “Yes, I was watching you come alongside. Which island have you come from?” I presumed that he had come down from Martinique, 20 miles to the north, or even, perhaps, from Bequia, 70 miles to the south. “Well, actually,” he replied, with a slight twinkle in his eye, “from Gran Canaria”.

“You mean you’ve just sailed across the Atlantic?” I asked.

“Well,” he smiled, “Er, yes, actually …..”

I asked him how long he had taken. “Forty seven days,” he replied modestly. Even for a 26-foot Folkboat, this seemed like an inordinately long time. In my fat old 31-footer I had managed a 29-day crossing.

“That’s a long time,” I commented. “What happened? Bad weather?”

“No, not really,” he answered, still smiling. “But I took the sails down every night so that I could get a decent sleep”.

I had never before heard of such a thing. The notion of a trans-Atlantic sailor dropping his sails every evening, retiring to bed for a good night’s sleep and then hoisting the sails each morning before breakfast, seemed to me to be not only improbable but also eccentric.

“Yes,” he continued, in his calm, unhurried manner, “I suppose it was a bit of a long crossing. But,” he added with a chuckle, “I just couldn’t be bothered with all that staying awake at night, worrying about having too much sail up, having to reef on my own in the dark and all that. It was just easier to pull ’em down and go to bed. By the way, my name’s Bill”. And he extended a large, rough hand.

Bill was a short man and reminded me of a small bear. There was an ever-present twinkle in his eye and he spoke of his nearly seven week solitary trans-Atlantic voyage, in a vessel not much bigger than a dinghy, with a modesty and matter-of-factness that suggested he had done no more than crossed a pond.

Of course the cruising yachtsman’s euphemism for the Atlantic Ocean has long been “The Pond” and it was not uncommon to hear amongst groups of sailors exchanging embellished tales in small bars, the casual question “Just come over the pond, have you?” This ridiculous understatement, so very British, belied the secret pride harboured by those who had crossed – but to have referred to one’s achievement as if it were anything more than trivial, would have been considered vulgar and so, each year, the bars thronged with people who were delighted to expound on marine engineering, horticulture or Chinese cuisine, but who casually dismissed their achievements under sail with a flippant wave of the hand.

Whilst Bill drank gratefully from a bottle of ice-cold beer with which I had presented him, I explained the lay-out of the marina and told him where to find the showers. He mentioned that he was looking for an inexpensive alongside berth where he could spend a few weeks and have some repairs done on his yacht and so I suggested that he try the A-Frame, a small bar and restaurant on the waterfront in the inner lagoon. The place was managed by an Englishman and his St Lucian wife, and it had a long, somewhat dilapidated dock where it was possible to moor stern-to at reasonable cost. Bill duly set off to inquire about this, and I arranged to see him when he had settled in at his new berth.

I saw Bill frequently over the next few days. Divested of his yellow oilskins and now refreshed with fresh-water showers and cold beers, Bill still looked like a small bear. The top of his head was bald and shiny and he had a mop of lank brown hair that fell to his collar. He was plump and stocky and it was difficult to guess his age – he might equally have been 25 or 40. His bright eyes were lively and intelligent, but the entire lower half of his face was obscured by his great, bushy beard. He was an engaging fellow with a dry sense of humour and it was clear that, after his weeks alone at sea, he was now relishing the companionship of others.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when, one day, I found him sitting in the bar looking decidedly glum, and I asked him what the matter was.

“I’ve got a problem,” he groaned, “Oh boy, do I have a serious problem!”

I sat down and asked him to tell me about it.

“I have,” he said, slowly emphasising each word, “I have a RAT on board!” He rolled the letter “R” on his tongue and almost spat the word out of his mouth, as if to underscore the repulsive nature of his dilemma. I looked at him sympathetically. A rat on a yacht is a very unpleasant business – very unpleasant indeed.

Quite apart from the hygienic considerations, or the possibility of the yacht’s electrical wiring being gnawed through, or the disagreeable experience of having one’s toes incised in the dead of night, there is the awful frustration of knowing that the creature is present, of being able to hear it – yet unable to catch it.

It is like hearing the high-pitched siren of a nose-diving mosquito by your ear, in the dark; the sound, and the knowledge of its presence, are more painful than the bite which ensues. I have found that the wearing of ear-plugs at night-time in the tropics greatly reduces the uneasiness caused by these insects and in fact I believe that I may even have been bitten less frequently as a result.

“Have you actually seen the creature?” I asked Bill.

“Well, I haven’t exactly seen it,” he admitted, “but I know that it’s there. I can hear it – every night. Scurrying about the boat. I hear it in one place and then, when I go and have a look, there’s nothing there and then I hear it again somewhere else. Honestly, it’s driving me crazy! It must have climbed up my docklines”.

Of course, it is well known in tropical harbours that rats employ this under-handed method of gaining access to ships and, for this reason, larger ships use rat-guards – large, circular metal plates through which the mooring lines are passed and over which the rodents cannot climb. But, on small yachts, this practice is unusual and, in any case, rarely necessary as the small diameter of a yacht’s mooring line would make it extremely difficult for all but the most athletic of rodents to obtain a foothold.

But I had heard of occasional instances of rats boarding yachts in this manner and one acquaintance of mine (now a well known cruising guide author) had been driven to the brink of insanity when a rat, swept into Rodney Bay lagoon after a torrential downpour, had clung to the anchor chain of his yacht and somehow boarded the vessel. My acquaintance, as I recall, endured two months on board in the company of this uninvited guest before he was finally able to corner it and permanently anaesthetise it with a winch handle.

Even on the smallest of yachts, there are innumerable hiding-places for the visiting rodent – in or behind lockers, beneath the floor-boards in the dark, dank bilges, or in the maze of pipework, mechanical installations and electrical fittings. A yachting rat will very soon discover a place to conceal himself, and you can be assured that he will choose the place that is least accessible to the vessel’s human owner.

“Have you tried a mouse-trap with some bait?” I suggested.

“Yes,” sighed Bill, “but nothing happened. I set it several nights in a row, but the next morning the cheese is always there and the trap is still set. Maybe he doesn’t like cheese. But I can still hear the bastard running around. He must be damned clever!”

“Mmmm, maybe you could try a piece of raw meat?” I ventured. “He’s sure to go for that – no rat could decently resist a nice, juicy cut of red meat!”

“Good idea!” said Bill and immediately rushed off to the local supermarket where he bought an enormous cut of horse flesh. On his return to the yacht, he sprinkled the meat liberally with rat poison and put the bait in place on top of his spring-loaded mousetrap.

The following morning, I met Bill for a coffee in the marina bakery. His head was bowed, and he looked more dejected than ever. I asked him what had happened, and he cursed quietly into his beard, and replied that nothing at all had happened. He had awoken early, noticed a repulsive stench emanating from the area of his galley and had found the horse meat – intact, but already quite rotten and infested with hundreds of flies.

It had taken him an hour to rid the yacht of the smell of rotting meat and a plague of flies. He looked tired and said that he was finding it increasingly difficult to sleep at night because he could constantly hear the rat scurrying around, crunching on things and making strange crackling sounds. He was convinced that it was mocking him.

“Alright!” I said, “What we need is a concerted campaign, a combined effort, using all our resources and cunning. Don’t worry, Bill, we’ll get your rat. First of all, I suggest you get all your gear off the yacht so that it’s completely stripped.”

He agreed and, next morning, he made arrangements to store all his equipment ashore. When I wandered by, later in the day, I found him squatting by the main companionway hatch, clutching a large hammer in one hand. I asked him what he was doing.

“Ha!” he exclaimed, demonically, “I’ve taken all my stuff off the yacht and I’ve flooded the bilges with fresh water – so if he’s hiding anywhere beneath the floorboards, he’s going to have to come up for air at some stage. And when he does – BONG! I smash him on the head with this hammer!”

He looked at me triumphantly, but I was not entirely convinced and was concerned that the most likely outcome would be severe damage to that part of the yacht which suffered the full force of the descending hammer. Nevertheless, I could see that Bill was a desperate man and I supposed that it would be best to allow him to explore every avenue at his disposal, no matter how improbable the method or unlikely the outcome. When I returned in the evening, around sundown, I could still make out the silhouette of the large, bearded figure, squatting at the entrance to his boat, the hammer still clutched defiantly in one hand.

The following day, Bill came up to me with a mysterious, almost wicked gleam in his eyes. “Did you get him?” I asked, incredulously.

“No!” he said “But now I know how I’m going to! I’m going to smoke him out!!”

For a brief moment, I was appalled by the notion of a fiendish Bill incinerating the interior of his yacht. I knew that his despondency was developing into a loathing from which irrational behaviour would ensue. But then he explained further, and asked me to drive my pick-up truck to the dock. I did so. Bill then produced a ten-yard length of hose that slipped neatly over my vehicle’s exhaust and, unravelling it, he led the free end on board his yacht and pointed it towards the main saloon.

“Now!” he shouted, “Stick your foot on the accelerator!”

Within a few moments, Bill was coughing and spluttering from the fumes. He pulled the hose back, shut the main hatch, stuffed an old t-shirt into the crack between the hatch-boards, and leaped onto the dockside where he stood, jubilant and somewhat grimy.

“That’ll get him,” he said confidently. We’ll leave the boat shut up overnight and then tomorrow I’ll open her up, get some fresh air inside and chuck the corpse over the side!”

I had to admit that I felt our chances of success were now improving, for what manner of creature, either human or rodent, could possibly survive the toxic fumes that had just been pumped into the yacht? That evening, we ate heartily and washed down our meal with a good deal of wine. For the first time in several days, Bill was his old self, cheerful, witty and announcing to all present that he was on the verge of a great victory.

At some unspeakable hour, Bill rose unsteadily from his chair and staggered happily down the dock towards a friend’s yacht where he would pass the night and where, for the first time in more than a week, he would be able to sleep undisturbed by the patter of tiny feet.

The next morning, a crowd of bemused yachtsmen gathered on the dock around Bill’s yacht, waiting for the rat-catcher to make his appearance. It was a long wait, for the excesses of the previous evening had consigned Bill to a torpor from which he did not rouse himself until well after midday. When he did eventually show himself, bleary-eyed, he strode confidently towards his boat, a small smile on his pursed lips.

The onlookers watched expectantly as he tore off the hatch boards, slid open the companionway hatch and flung away the old t-shirts that were stuffed into every orifice on the upper deck. He then disappeared into the main saloon, only to emerge a few seconds later, coughing and spluttering. I suggested that he allow some time for the air to clear, and he agreed. Returning to my office, I told him that I would see him later for a celebratory cocktail.

I was delayed and did not arrive at the bar until 10.00 p.m. There were few people inside, and I could make out Bill’s familiar shape hunched over a bottle of beer at the counter. I walked up and slapped him on the back and asked him how things were. He turned slowly to look at me, and at first I thought he had been crying for his eyes had a glazed, slightly moist appearance, red and glistening at the edges. But as soon as he spoke, I realised that he was drunk.

“It’s not posshible,” he lamented, “jush not posshible!” He kept repeating himself, shaking his head and mumbling strange things into his beard. “I can shtill hear the bastard!” he continued, “the pitter-patter of his feet, the grinding of his teeth as he crunches into another peesh of my boat. I can’t take it any more. I’m going to BURN him out!” he shouted and, with that, he grabbed my box of matches and stood up. I placed an arm on his shoulder and said gently:

“Look, Bill, there has to be another way. Let’s go on board and have a coffee and talk about it”.

With two other fellows, we strolled down the dock and clambered aboard Bill’s tiny and very empty yacht, and sat down on the hard saloon seats. Bill stumbled over to the small cooker and placed a coffee pot on one of the burners. It was a still evening, with hardly a breath of wind. Around the waterline of the boat, we could clearly hear the loud crackling of the barnacles and crustaceans that abounded in these tropical waters. Suddenly Bill yelled “There! Quiet! Can’t you hear it??!!”

We craned our necks and listened intently. And then, all of a sudden, my two friends and I doubled up with laughter until we almost fell off our seats. For the only discernible sounds were the crackling and pitter-patter of the aforementioned barnacles – a common phenomenon in Caribbean lagoons, but one that is possibly unfamiliar to the man who has sailed only in colder waters ….. comparable, some might even say, to the pitter-patter of the tiny feet of some small rodent.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.